Reconsidering "the essence and foundation of reality"

The General Secretary of the Laudato Si’ International Institute for the Care of Creation unpacks vital visions for Catholic ecology

Last month I posted on the Laudato Si’ International Institute for the Care of Creation in Granada, Spain, founded by Archbishop Javier Martínez. I promised more news and insights about the Institute, and here it is, thanks to a special interview offered by Michael Dominic Taylor, who serves the organization as its General Secretary.


Catholic Ecology: It seems to me that many responses to the Church’s teachings on ecology—most especially in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’—focus on employing and/or engaging worldly systems of power (in the public square or on public streets) to bring about policy changes in governments and in the board room. Is the Institute approaching things differently? And if so, how?

Michael Dominic Taylor: Laudato Si’ is, first and foremost, a social encyclical in the line of Rerum Novarum and Pacem in Terris. Pope Francis, like Saint Pope John XXIII before him, who addressed his encyclical “to all men and women of good will,” addressed Laudato Si’ “to all people” (LS, 3). While perhaps to our human perception issues such as imminent nuclear war in the times of Pacem in Terris and the current ecological crises can only be mediated by worldly powers and not by your average person, there is nonetheless a mystical union of all humanity in which the sanctification of just one person truly sanctifies and betters the world. In the same way, we believe that while political actions must be taken and technology must also do its part to save our world from ecological collapse, the true struggle goes unseen in each of us.

The message of Laudato Si’ contains some recommendations that can only be put into place by the worldly powers that be, but it also contains a more universal—and more important—message of spiritual transformation. In his inaugural homily, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that “the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” Pope Francis echoes Pope John Paul II’s call to “an ecological conversion” (LS, 5). While we are dedicated to all aspects—ecological, economical, social, political, ethical—of the current crisis, the Laudato Si’ Institute understands that the relationship between man and nature must give witness to the divine harmony of all beings and be based in respect and care for all.

"[W]hile political actions must be taken and technology must also do its part to save our world from ecological collapse, the true struggle goes unseen in each of us."

The ecological crisis is an integral human crisis that has no quick fix. We must also keep in mind the words of Christ: “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mk 8:36). We understand the each of us has a part to play and the principle aspect of each of our contributions is to be transformed by God into new men and new women. We will not solve the problems created by our current way of doing politics, economics and technology using the same tools that got us here. It is precisely by “deifying” these that they do the most damage.

We must all do our part according to the best of our abilities, not to reach a state of worldly well-being but to be holy as we work towards a better world. The Church has always been concerned with the state of the world but in the sense that it is concerned for the well-being, temporal and eternal, of each individual person. At the Laudato Si’ Institute in Granada, this is the vision that underlies all of our work.

For this reason, we are working wherever we believe we can have the most impact in the lives of individuals and especially communities. Our projects cover a wide range of activities, from a public exhibition in the center of Granada entitled “Sister Mother Earth” (in St. Francis’ words) which presents the Church’s approach to the care of creation, to an urban garden behind the city’s seminary where in-need local residents can grow their own produce with the help of a seminarian, to our online international graduate certificate on Integral Ecology with Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, and to community development projects in the neediest rural communities of the mountains surrounding Granada.

As Archbishop Martínez, or simply “Don Javier” as he prefers to be called, often says, the Church is interested in everything because Christianity is about everything.

CE: How did the Institute come into being? And tell us about some of its founders?

Taylor: The Institute has actually been a long time dream for many of the founding members, many of whom have known each other for more than ten years and have been working in the fields of conservation, environmental sciences and studies, philosophy and theology. We all felt that the Spirit was moving when the encyclical Laudato Si’ was published on Pentecost of 2015. The definitive moment for the creation of the Institute came when Archbishop Javier Martínez invited Professor Pablo Martínez de Anguita to give a talk on the encyclical in Granada. The Archbishop, being the son of a shepherdess and growing up in the hills of northern Spain himself, has had a great concern for applying Catholic social and ecological doctrine in the archdiocese of Granada, especially in its rural communities. It seemed time to put things into action and the Institute was created on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, May 13th 2016.

CE: You recently published an essay Towards an Integral Ecological Ethic: The Renewal of Metaphysics in the Thought of Stratford Caldecott. How has Caldecott’s work been an influence in the Institute and its founders?

Taylor: The late Stratford Caldecott was not only a dear friend of many of the founding members of the Institute but a true Catholic visionary, which is apparent in his books and articles. He was a scholar of the greatest caliber whose interests were so broad that he was able to speak lucidly about quantum physics, ecological poetry and euthanasia in response to one question. But he was not an isolated thinker; he belonged to the Church wholeheartedly and to a community of friends, many of whom are founding members of the Institute today. At the Institute we draw on his work for inspiration constantly and consider him to be a fellow founding member. That is why he is featured on the “Founding Members” page of our website.

"We believe that in order to get to the root of our ecological crisis we must look not merely to politics or technology but at the whole of reality and reconsider what we take to be the essence and foundation of reality."

My book was a humble attempt to bring together the elements of his ecological vision which was as metaphysical as it was practical. I hope that it can draw attention, especially among those working closely with the environment, to Caldecott’s vision and work.

CE: The Institute is offering an online certificate in Christianity and Integral Ecology: A World to Love and a Life to Live. What are your hopes for how this offering can help transform lives—both those working to achieve the certificate and those they will come in contact with.

Taylor: The Integral Ecology certificate is very exciting because this is the first time (that we know of) that something so comprehensive is being offered. Our partnership with Saint Joseph’s College of Maine has been such a blessing. The program is a five course, interdisciplinary graduate certificate that will include two beautiful on-site weeks, in both Maine and Granada. It promises to be a very enriching experience on both sides.

Though even the most ancient Christians had an intuitive sense of what it meant to be stewards of creation, today we are facing a unique set of challenges and we believe that Catholics have a lot to offer. The modern, dualistic and technocratic mindset tends to analyze, divide and segment reality, often losing sight of the big picture and presenting all problems as conflicts. On the other hand, current environmental thought often identifies man as the villain. Both of these approaches are purely materialistic and fail to identify the root of the problem, which we believe is at the very core of the way we see reality. Man and nature are intimately bound as creatures of the same Creator who is Love. Our vocation is one of stewardship for the good of all life on our planet. This certificate will be an in-depth exploration of these truths.

CE: When you look at the state of the world today, and of the ecological movement, what are your fears, and what are your hopes?

Taylor: In my view, the ecological movements that exist around the world have much to offer. Society’s tendency to see all things in terms of economics, power and technological progress leads modern men and women to forget our connectedness and dependency on nature. We risk forgetting what we believe to be an essential element of our humanity and one of the keys of the salvation of all creation: our childlike sense of wonder. Many ecological movements point out these failings but without a positive answer to the questions that these experiences bring about in us, I am afraid they will be frustrated in their attempts to fix what are really only the outer manifestations of a deeper problem.

Stratford Caldecott addressed the problem in this way:

For probably the majority of the environmental movement will not see the relevance of mysticism, or personal virtue and morality, to the great issues of our day. To them it is merely a technological or political challenge. They will try to get their hands on the levers of power, and will be increasingly and everlastingly frustrated to discover that all their attempts come to nothing, or make things worse. I do not mean to say that there is no point in political action, but rather that the assumption that these problems are primarily political is a mistake… The idea that we can solve the world’s problems by throwing power and money at them does not take account of human nature. It leads to the creation of vast commercial and political empires that inevitably become corrupt…

We believe that in order to get to the root of our ecological crisis we must look not merely to politics or technology but at the whole of reality and reconsider what we take to be the essence and foundation of reality. My hope is that some people will listen to the message of the Church when it says, “May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope” (LS, 244), our hope in our loving God and Creator who gives life to all things.

CE: Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Taylor: I would like add that a proper interpretation of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is very crucial in our days. Many people talk about it without reading it thoroughly or at all. Many read it without seeking to understand the Pope’s message but rather looking for what they want to find in it. Some would like to think that it is all about climate change. Others would like brush it aside entirely. Who among us can claim to fully fathom the depths of what the Holy Spirit wishes to communicate to the Church and the world through this document?

In my opinion though, the best, most profound, article I have seen on how to read Laudato Si’ was written by one of the founding members of the Institute, Mary Taylor, in the Winter 2015 edition of the "Communio: International Catholic Review." (She happens also to be my mother!) You can find her article, "Ecology on One’s Knees: Reading Laudato Si’," here.

(Editor: For more by Mary Taylor, see her essay in Catholic Ecology, "The Communio Connection," here.)


Michael D. Taylor graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine with a joint degree in Biology and Environmental Studies. His honors thesis was on the spawning ecology of steelhead trout in a remote region of Alaska. Not long after, having experienced firsthand the poverty of the third world on several “alternative spring break” trips, Taylor traveled to Peru after college to continue his work. He spent more than five years between Peru and Chile before moving to Rome where he studied philosophy and considered joining the priesthood. There Taylor was able to discern that God was calling him elsewhere. After finishing his degree, he moved to Madrid where he earned a Master’s degree in Bioethics. While in Spain, Taylor's inspiration from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ to create an organization dedicated to the promotion of the Catholic ecological vision finally began to take shape in the Archdiocese of Granada when Archbishop Javier Martínez Laudato Si’ founded the International Institute for the Care of Creation. Taylor can be reached at Mike@LaudatoSiInstitute.org.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.